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Rebuilding Sergeant Peck: How I Put Body and Soul Back Together After Afghanistan

Rebuilding Sergeant Peck: How I Put Body and Soul Back Together After Afghanistan

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Rebuilding Sergeant Peck: How I Put Body and Soul Back Together After Afghanistan

Length:
328 pages
5 hours
Publisher:
Released:
May 7, 2019
ISBN:
9781510740662
Format:
Book

Description

"I met Marine Sgt. John Peck, a quadruple amputee who has received a double arm transplant, at Walter Reed in 2017. Today, it was my honor to welcome John (HERO) to the Oval, with his wonderful wife Jessica. He also wrote a book that I highly recommend, Rebuilding Sergeant Peck."—President Donald Trump

Marine Sgt. John Peck survived an IED during the War on Terror that left him with a traumatic brain injury, amnesia, and cost him his marriage. He survived another three years later, one that left him with three and a half limbs missing. He’s one of only two living people to survive the flesh-eating fungus he contracted in recovery at Walter Reed, one that left him as a quadruple amputee. And that’s only the beginning of his story.

What followed was a recovery nothing short of miraculous. With resilience and the help of advocates like actor and philanthropist Gary Sinise, FOX’s Jennifer Griffin, and Bill O’Reilly, John would use a specialized “Action Trackchair” wheelchair and a newly-built SmartHome to get a third lease on life. In 2016, Peck underwent a groundbreaking bilateral arm transplant, receiving two new arms. To date, the surgery has been successful.

Today, Peck is a motivational speaker, a philanthropist for veteran and wounded warrior causes, and is pursuing his lifelong dream of becoming a chef with the help of Chef Robert Irvine. From the lessons learned in a difficult childhood and as a homeless teenager, to dealing with depression in recovery, to learning how to chop with another man’s arms, Rebuilding Sergeant Peck is Peck’s account of an honest, visceral, and inspirational story that is truly unique.
Publisher:
Released:
May 7, 2019
ISBN:
9781510740662
Format:
Book

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Rebuilding Sergeant Peck - John Peck

To my fallen Marines—you are the true heroes. And to my donor and his family, who, after his passing, gave me his arms and a chance to pursue my dreams.

Copyright © 2019 by John Peck, Dava Guerin, and Terry Bivens

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without the express written consent of the publisher, except in the case of brief excerpts in critical reviews or articles. All inquiries should be addressed to Skyhorse Publishing, 307 West 36th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10018.

Skyhorse Publishing books may be purchased in bulk at special discounts for sales promotion, corporate gifts, fund-raising, or educational purposes. Special editions can also be created to specifications. For details, contact the Special Sales Department, Skyhorse Publishing, 307 West 36th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10018 or info@skyhorsepublishing.com.

Skyhorse® and Skyhorse Publishing® are registered trademarks of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.®, a Delaware corporation.

Visit our website at www.skyhorsepublishing.com.

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available on file.

Cover design by Qualcom

Cover photo courtesy of Jessica Peck

ISBN: 978-1-5107-4065-5

Ebook ISBN: 978-1-5107-4066-2

Printed in the United States of America

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Foreword, Gary Sinise, actor, humanitarian, and founder of the Gary Sinise Foundation

Foreword, Jennifer Griffin, FOX News National Security Correspondent

Introduction

Preface: Rebuilt: Announcing My New Arms

Chapter One: Just the Two of Us

Chapter Two: Just a Sperm Donor

Chapter Three: My Angry Adolescence

Chapter Four: The Young Buck Discovers the Marines

Chapter Five: Becoming a Marine

Chapter Six: Refining My Skills

Chapter Seven: In Country: The First Blast

Chapter Eight: I Don’t Know Why I Love You

Chapter Nine: Finally, a Marine Again

Chapter Ten: Becoming a Squad Leader

Chapter Eleven: Back in the Game

Chapter Twelve: Waking Up Without Arms and Legs

Chapter Thirteen: Becoming Independent: No Nursing Home for Me

Chapter Fourteen: Bethesda Bound: My Recovery Continues

Chapter Fifteen: Making Tracks with Trackchairs

Chapter Sixteen: Navigating My New Smart Home

Chapter Seventeen: All Roads Lead to Boston

Chapter Eighteen: Finding My Penguin

Chapter Nineteen: My Bilateral Arm Transplant: The Run-Up

Chapter Twenty: The Transplant Itself: Rearming a Marine

Chapter Twenty-One: The Long, Hard Road out of Boston

Chapter Twenty-Two: Sergeant John Peck, New and Improved

Chapter Twenty-Three: Paying It Forward

Epilogue

Acknowledgments

About the Authors

Photo Insert

FOREWORD

Gary Sinise, actor, humanitarian, and founder of the Gary Sinise Foundation

I MET SGT. JOHN PECK IN THE FALL OF 2010; HE HAS BEEN AN INSPIRATION TO me ever since. John has rebuilt his body and soul, and his is a compelling story of determination, persistence, and service.

After committing to build homes for the first two surviving quadruple amputees from the War on Terror, Brendan Marrocco and Todd Nicely, we received a third and most distressing call. On May 24, 2010, Sgt. John Peck had finished sweeping a compound with a metal detector checking for bombs, when he stepped on an IED. He became America’s third surviving quadruple amputee.

As I had pledged my support for Brendan and Todd by building smart homes for them, I wanted to meet John to see how I could help him and learn more about his injuries and needs going forward. That was the summer of 2010. While his mother was staying with him at Walter Reed, still John was struggling physically and mentally. He was battling depression, and it was important for me to let him know that he was not alone and was supported. Despite the severity of his injuries, it was obvious to me that John was special. You could see the determination in his eyes, and I knew—though his recovery would be long and painful—he would tackle it like the consummate Marine he is.

So, I invited John and his mom to attend our 2011 Salute to the Troops event in Vegas. Fortunately, they were able to get away from the hospital, and I was happy to see John smile and have some welcome relief from his pain. We offered to raise funds to help build a smart home for him as well, and this was very early on in the creation of my foundation. It was no simple matter to raise the funds necessary for each smart home project. But our heroes deserve this and more, and I wanted to do everything I could to help. One of the ways we did this was by performing fund-raising concerts. We did one each for Brendan and Todd within a year of their injuries. They both attended their tribute concerts, and they were great celebrations of their service to our country. Through these efforts, we were able to raise a portion of the money to begin their building projects, as well as raise awareness for what we were doing. John would be our next endeavor, and I couldn’t be happier.

In the beginning, John wasn’t sure whether he wanted to live in his home state of Illinois, so, his concert wasn’t able to materialize as quickly as the others. In the summer of 2011, the father of a fallen soldier, Hector Castro, reached out to me. His son, U.S. Army Specialist A.J. Castro, had been killed while fighting in Afghanistan. Hector wanted to do something to honor his fallen son. So, I suggested we raise some funds and put them into home building projects for our wounded. Hector liked the idea, and we set up a tribute concert in A.J.’s name at a small club in Agoura Hills, California, which raised $75,000. With Hector’s blessing, we put the proceeds toward John’s house, along with a plaque that we eventually placed in John’s new home in honor of A.J. In 2012, we raised even more money for John at the annual Rockin’ For the Troops concert that I host and perform with my Lt. Dan Band each year in Wheaton, Illinois, in support of Operation Support Our Troops America. As John was originally from Illinois, I asked the organization to donate $125,000 raised at that concert to go toward John’s home. Finally, we raised an additional $100,000 for John from my pal Clint Eastwood, who quietly wanted to support my efforts on behalf of our wounded.

November 11, 2012, Veterans Day, was a wonderful day. We handed over the keys to John for his new home built in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I was unable to attend the ceremony myself, but in video and photographs, I saw so many smiles from John that day. Smiles that were absent just a few years before. And that was beautiful to see.

Getting to know John over the years and watching him go from such a low point in the beginning to such resilience and strength has been remarkable. I have seen him at many of my concerts including Ft. Belvoir, and a concert to raise funds in Pennsylvania for Adam Keys, one of John’s friends. Only a few months before, we handed over keys to John for his home.

I have continued to stay in touch with him over the years and marvel at his courage. John has not only rebuilt his life, but now with his new arms, his dreams of being a professional chef seem unstoppable. Most of all, John knows the meaning of service firsthand. Not just his military service, but helping those in need. That’s why I believe John’s book, Rebuilding Sergeant Peck: How I Put Body and Soul Back Together after Afghanistan, will inspire anyone regardless of whether they serve in the military or not. I’m proud to call John my pal. John has spent his life giving back in so many ways, and for that reason, he is my hero.

—Gary Sinise

FOREWORD

Jennifer Griffin, Fox News national security correspondent

I REMEMBER MEETING SGT. JOHN PECK FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 2012. HE WAS in the audience at the Lt. Dan Band concert in Beaufort, South Carolina, where Gary Sinise and his band were playing for an audience of wounded veterans and their caregivers. They had been brought together by the Independence Fund. John is one of only a handful of quadruple amputees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has an irrepressible boyish outlook. We all danced together under the stars, as Gary and his band played. What John didn’t realize was that his youthful wish for a better wheelchair that wouldn’t get stuck in the mud launched a movement that night. Now, nearly 1,500 veterans and their families’ lives have been changed forever because of his desire to get back outside on his wooded lot in rural Virginia. It is one of the most beautiful grassroots initiatives that this patriotic country has ever produced.

John told the organizers that night that he had his eye on a wheelchair with tank-like treads that he could use on his land. These Trackchairs cost a princely sum: about $15,000. There were many hands that night in taking this wish and turning it into a reality. Perhaps it was Captain John Woody Woodall, a veteran firefighter who was dressed as Elvis and sang the Star-Spangled Banner that night, who fanned the spark. Or Kyle Johnson, the owner of a medical device company who placed the first bid that made the Trackchair a reality. Steve Danyluk, the former Marine American Airlines pilot, deserves credit for taking this idea and running with it.

Months later at the Walter Reed Christmas party, the first Trackchairs were ready to be delivered. Kyle Johnson flew up from Beaufort. Woody was dressed as Elvis, and John Peck was in the Warrior Café at Walter Reed with the other veterans and their families. Some were missing limbs. Others were suffering from traumatic brain injuries. My daughters, Annalise and Amelia, accompanied me and were handing out wrapped presents to some of the warriors and the children of those warriors who were living at Walter Reed in Bethesda while their parents were being treated. Some had been there for months, even years. When it was time to present John Peck his Trackchair, Kyle Johnson stepped up again.

Seeing the look on the face of John, who was doing wheelies with his chair in front of the hospital as though it were his first BMX bike, or the looks on the faces of those amputees who wanted a chair but stared at them longingly as though they were a red Lamborghini, Kyle donated money for another Trackchair to be given away at the Christmas party. My daughters were sitting at a table with a double amputee named Kevin. They had offered him a space at their table when he was wheeling toward them with a plate full of food. Woody asked them who should get the next Trackchair. They shouted in unison: Kevin. That was the beginning of what has become a movement championed by Bill O’Reilly, the former Fox anchor. But John Peck introduced everyone to these Trackchairs.

A few weeks later, I went down to Fredericksburg, Virginia, to his Smart Home built by the Gary Sinise Foundation, to see John use his Trackchair. Before our cameras began rolling, he wanted to have a cigarette. I looked at him and, a cancer survivor myself, said, You know they can kill you. He was nonplussed. John then proceeded to hook his Trackchair up to his SUV and pull it up the driveway. He whooped and hollered as he went rolling over the hills in his front yard. The sheer joy on his face, the sheer will to live and live well, is what makes John such an inspiration. He showed me videos of him skydiving after losing his limbs. He went scuba diving. He cooks. He dated on Match.com. He came to speak at my daughters’ school and enthralled their sixth- and seventh-grade classes. He told them how he wants to have a double arm transplant. The children of John Eaton School in Washington, D.C., then held a car wash and raised $1,100.01 for the surgery. You could hear a pin drop when he spoke to the students. None of them have forgotten that visit. He described being blown up in Helmand Province on May 24, 2010: All I could feel was this immense amount of pain and burning. I came back to, and I could feel the rotor wash from the helicopter. He said to himself, I don’t want to die here. I can’t die here. This is Afghanistan. This place sucks. He woke up two-and-a-half months later in Bethesda Naval Hospital. He found out he was pronounced dead once and had more than twenty-eight surgeries.

Marine Sgt. John Peck is a survivor, but he is also a thriver. His story still makes me smile. I am so grateful that he entered our lives.

INTRODUCTION

SERGEANT PECK REPORTING FOR DUTY, SIR. YEP, THAT’S ME, BUT THIS TIME I wasn’t serving in the United States Marine Corps, but sitting around with my wife and some friends cooking pizzas. My job was to throw on the pepperoni and mushrooms. I can’t chop up the onions or shred the cheese the way I would like. But I’m doing damn good for someone who’s using what more than two years ago were someone else’s arms and hands. And I’m certain that one day I’ll slice, dice, and shred with the best of them.

You may have seen me on television or read about me in the newspaper or on social media. I’m the Marine sergeant who lost both arms and legs in the War on Terror, one of only five other quadruple amputees serving in the military. I’m also one of the roughly eighty people worldwide to receive a successful double arm transplant and one of the fewer still having an above-the-elbow attachment. I did that in the fall of 2016, thanks to the great doctors at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Before this groundbreaking surgery, I could not hold my wife’s hand. Now I can.

Being a quadruple amputee isn’t fun. It’s hell, that’s for sure. But now that I have my new arms, things are getting better. Little by little, I can move them the way I want and do simple things that I couldn’t before, like combing my hair or washing myself in the shower. And there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t look down at what I call our arms and think about my donor and what he did for me. His family’s sacrifice is something I will never forget.

I know that as time goes by, I’ll be able to do a lot more; I plan to cook dinner for all my family and friends someday.

Life, I guess you could say, has thrown a lot at me. My dad abandoned me even before I was born. Growing up wasn’t easy, but is it for anyone? After high school, I found a home in the United States Marine Corps, but my challenges were only beginning. In 2007, on my first tour in Iraq, my buddies and I were returning from a grueling day-long patrol when we rounded a corner in a seven-ton armored truck and rolled over an IED. I was manning the M240 machine gun. The blast smashed my head into the gun.

As a result, I suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI), as well as vision, balance, and hearing problems. My memory was shot. When my first wife came to visit me in the hospital, I had no idea who she was, much less that I had married her. Or why I had married her. I tried everything I could to rekindle my feelings for her, or even develop new ones. But nothing seemed to work, and eventually, we got divorced.

But as I said, I’m a Marine. I love the job. I signed up to fight, and, TBI and all, I convinced the Marine Corps to send me back into battle. This time it was Afghanistan. And this time it was even worse.

It was May 24, 2010. I was walking a patrol in the infamous Helmand Province. I was clearing a compound with a metal detector and remember my sergeant asking me if I found anything yet. I told him I didn’t. I took one more step and yelled to my sergeant, I found one! The other guys in my unit started running, and my sergeant ran toward me to pull me away. He never made it. The next step I took changed everything. The IED blew off both of my legs and part of my right arm. Apparently, my sergeant told my mom later that it was chaos. Luckily, all my sergeant suffered was some hearing loss. I didn’t make out so well.

It’s hard to remember everything that’s happened in the years since. Hell, it’s sometimes hard for me to remember anything at all, thanks to my traumatic brain injury. But I’m told it involved some twenty-eight surgeries, a bout with a flesh-eating fungus, and a collapsed stent that eventually claimed the only limb I had left, my left arm. My blood pressure dropped to dangerous levels during some of those surgeries. A few times, I almost died. And that’s just a taste of what I’ve been through.

But I’m alive, very much alive. I have two new arms, thanks to a man whose death I mourn every day. Though I can’t reveal his name because of the donor’s family wishes, his father told me that he was a caring and talented young man. He was only in his twenties when he died of a rare brain disease, and thanks to his generosity, I was fortunate to receive his beautiful arms. He will always be a part of me as long as I live. I also have a beautiful and caring wife, Jessica, who loves me. I have a mission in life—to become a great chef, motivational speaker, and a help to other wounded warriors just like me. And I have this book.

So why am I writing it? Well, it’s not for the publicity or a chance to be famous. Anyone who knows me realizes that I hate the spotlight. When I’m thrust into it, I kind of shut down, lower my head, and hope it ends soon. Sure, I did some publicity with the hospital in Boston when I had my arm transplant, but I did that to let people in similar situations know there was a way to actually get your arms back; I’m living proof. And to encourage every American citizen to become an organ donor.

I didn’t do it for the money, either. No, I’m writing this book to give hope to all those people who run into something terrible in their lives and can’t see their way past it. God knows I’ve had many times when I could have just quit, just said, Screw it. But I pushed on like any Marine or soldier would. No pain, no gain.

I hope through this book readers can learn from my unusual and challenging life experiences. My story will take them from my chaotic childhood and troubled adolescence to my search for purpose, a purpose I found in the United States Marine Corps. But after all the pride and accomplishment I gained in the Corps, my life suddenly fell to depths no one should experience—losing all my limbs and searching for a way to kill myself. Through it all, however, I’ve emerged as a stronger and more empathetic human being—truly rebuilt, including my new arms. I want readers to know that things will always get better, to have faith, and to try to have a sense of humor about it all. If I can achieve my goals with all that I’ve been through, anyone can.

Now as I said, I’m a Marine. Don’t expect me to write flowery phrases or to lay some heavy positive thinking rap on you like some leatherneck Norman Vincent Peale. People overcome terrible adversity for many different reasons. Mine was a rock-hard, almost genetically engineered will to survive, a drive that has pushed me to overcome everything I faced. It wavered only once, that time at Walter Reed when I was suicidal. I even came up with a plan to take my wheelchair to the top floor of the building where I was living and let it tumble down the steps. I wanted to end my pain.

Then, the day before I was going to call it quits, I looked out the window and saw a soldier with no legs—just like me—sitting in his wheelchair. I remember imagining he was on his way to wheel that chair right into the busy traffic outside the base. But then I saw who I assumed was his wife and a little child walking over to meet him. She put the child on his lap, and they left, her pushing the chair and all of them smiling and laughing. I thought, Hell, if he can have a wife and child and be happy, so could I.

My core, my fiery will to survive, had kicked back in. If I can find that will, you can, too.

Before I start, though, let me say one quick, but important, thing. The traumatic brain injury (TBI) I mentioned earlier affects me deeply to this day. TBI affects different people in different ways, but for me, it made remembering parts of my life painful, challenging, and, in some cases, almost impossible. It’s like a clock with a few gear teeth missing; sometimes there are jolting, maddening gaps. I’ve tried to fill those gaps with some help from others and with the insights I’ve gained by surviving my tumultuous life and emerging a stronger, more tolerant, and better person.

PREFACE

Rebuilt: Announcing My New Arms

THE BIG DAY IS FINALLY HERE. TODAY, I’LL MEET THE PRESS FOR THE FIRST time following my double arm transplant. I hate this kind of stuff. But the office of strategic communications at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, stressed the importance of telling my story for the first time to the world. I can’t stand being the center of attention, but this time is different. I’m speaking for two people now, not just one.

It took a little while before I was ready for this moment. My doctors had to wait to make sure my new arms weren’t rejected and that I didn’t have any signs of infection. Plus, the pain sucked, and there was no way right after my surgery that I could speak in public without babbling my brains out, thanks to all the pain meds and just the normal stages of recovery from such a major surgery.

My mom told me about this type of surgery soon after my injury. Thank goodness she did. I did my own research, as well. My girlfriend, now my wife, Jessica, was there by my side all the way. Though at the time she only knew me for six months, she was my rock. She helped me get ready to travel to the hospital in Boston from my home in Virginia, helped me understand what was involved in such a groundbreaking surgery, and, most of all, was my support system. I couldn’t have done this without her. Jess used to call me her penguin. Now don’t get the wrong idea. What she meant was that emperor penguins meet their soul mates and stay together for life; Jess and I have no intention of messing with Mother Nature.

The morning of the press conference, which was held in a large room at Brigham, I felt a million different emotions. Just a few months before, I was a quadruple amputee. While it wasn’t a cakewalk living without arms and legs, plus suffering from a traumatic brain injury, I could still grab a plate from the cabinet thanks to my prosthetic arms and only needed help with things like putting on my shorts, showering, or running errands. I also needed someone there to help me with some other tasks that go along with being basically semi-independent. There were some days that I felt like shit. It was humiliating having to ask someone to help me with the most basic things like brushing my teeth, washing my hair, and putting on my shorts. What a sucker punch for a guy who was a strong, tough Marine and now has to be treated like a helpless baby.

So, there I was ready to announce to the world what previously I thought was only a pipe dream.

Before we entered the room for the press conference, I was so keyed up that I said every swear word I could think of, just to get the tension out of my system. Fuck, fuck, fuck, shit, shit, shit, I repeated over and over. Goddamnit, motherfucker, shit, shit, shit, I continued to mumble to myself. I’m sure anyone who heard me cursing like that thought I was nuts! Jess, the doctors, and the chief communications officer heard me.

What they were worried about was me—a Marine after all—having an open microphone and saying something off-color out of pure nervousness. They said something like this: Hey John, we’re going to wire you up right now, so as soon as you enter the room, watch what you say, or they’ll hear you.

Fortunately, the Brigham communications team prepared me for interviews, and that did help to get me ready for this moment. I insisted, however, that I write my own remarks. They also prepped me for the fact that there would be plenty of media there and gave me some questions they assumed the press was bound to ask. We practiced my speech over and over in a kind of mock-interview setting, and someone remarked that I needed to read it with more feeling. I get it. It had to be done. But this was my body. My new arms. My story. And there was no way that I was going to convey someone else’s version of how I felt at this critical moment. It was as if I were having an out-of-body experience. Here I was going to tell the world my story, but now with someone else’s arms attached to my stubs. I felt my donor’s presence as I tried to hold back my tears.

As the press conference was ready to begin, I glanced over at all the reporters in the room. It was surreal. As my doctors and I sat behind a rectangular table that had microphones for us to answer the reporters’ questions, I was scared. But it was weird that I wasn’t scared for me, but more like overwhelmed that this moment was finally here. While I was basically happy, it hit me hard that someone had to die to give me this gift. I vowed I never was going to waste it.

While I did have my talking points ready to roll, I made a split-second decision to go for it and just tell these people what was in my heart. I said something like this: "Following my surgery, I looked down at

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